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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Australia's Ancient Landscape

Air Date: Week of

The Olympic Games may be the shining moment of Australia's recent history. But the continent's past is just as exciting. It's an old, old land that, geologically-speaking, people have only recently discovered. Earlier this year on the National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick looked beyond kangaroos and koalas to see what makes Australia so different from everyplace else.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Olympic Games may be the shining moment of Australia's recent history. But the continent's past is just as exciting. It's an old, old land that, geologically-speaking, people have only recently discovered. Earlier this year on the National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick looked beyond kangaroos and koalas to see what makes Australia so different from everyplace else.

CHADWICK: The first time I found his work, I knew I wanted to talk with a particular Australian, who has written powerfully about the land. How to see it. How to hear it. A man who writes music. Peter Sculthorpe.

(Sculthorpe's music up and under)

SCULTHORPE: Once upon a time, when people would ask me what kind of a composer I am, I'd say I'm a religious composer. And then people would say oh, Catholic or Methodist or (laughs) Anglican? But of course I didn't mean it in the denominational sense. I meant that my music seeks the sacred in the Australian landscape, and the sacred in nature.

(Sculthorpe's music up and under)

CHADWICK: Their landscape is about the size of ours, but it's all Oregon 'round the edges and Utah on the inside. Desert-dry, sand, and rock. Parts of the east have forest, and the tropical north: hot, humid, rainy. In Darwin on the north coast, I met a geologist, Jamie Burgess.

BURGESS: It's very old. I think that's the main point that I probably want to make to your listeners, is that it's an exceptionally old continent geologically.

CHADWICK: All the continents have young parts, he said, and old parts. But Australia is so little young, so much old. Look what's missing: the geologic ages of change and catastrophe.

(Sculthorpe's music up and under)

BURGESS: You don't see any active volcanoes today on the Australian continent. There are very few earthquakes in places. It's a fairly stable mass, the Australian continent.

FLANNERY: Those earth processes are fundamental to the existence of life, and the diversity of life.

CHADWICK: The director of the Museum of South Australia in Adelaide, Tim Flannery, also writes natural history. Australia has native animals that look very strange to outsiders. But compared to other places, it does not have a lot of variety. Geology and biology are linked, Dr. Flannery says.

FLANNERY: New soil gets created through volcanoes and through glaciers, and through rifting and erosion and mountain-building. It's just fundamental to life.

CHADWICK: He's just returned to Australia from a year in the U.S. He's writing a book about ecological change on our continent, as he has about his own. To understand how different Australia is, he said, just compare the two time scales.

FLANNERY: If you consider North America and look at the Grand Canyon, that enormous excavation has all happened in the last five million years. If you look at this landscape here, we still have features on the landscape, small stream channels that were created 60 million years ago, and they might only be a couple of feet deep. But they're still there. I mean, it's just been so unchanging. And it's that incredible comatose geography and geology that's given Australia its ancient, unchanging aspect, I think.


CHADWICK: We had walked down through a eucalyptus forest in the hills east of Adelaide. The naturalist naming birds we saw, lizards, trees, as easily as I drive by Washington landmarks for friends from out of town. But now I asked Tim Flannery for a tour through history.

FLANNERY: Well, if I can paint a bit of a word picture for you, say, of what this area might have been like, what we see here today is this eucalyptus forest with kangaroos and wombats and iguanas and the kind of smaller fauna of Australia. Now, if we go back to before the arrival of humans, the Aboriginal people in this area, which probably occurred about 50,000 years ago, you've got to imagine a much richer forest. And in that richer forest, we'd have these very large marsupials, things the size of a rhinoceros, and they would be preyed on by not lions and tigers or anything like that, but truly gigantic lizards, as much as 20 feet long. So, you've really got to get back to the age of dinosaurs, you know, to Jurassic Park to find cold-blooded reptilian killers of that size anywhere in the world. But here in Australia, they have been an element of the fauna right up until the time people arrived on the continent.



CHADWICK: I wouldn't have come.

(Flannery laughs)

CHADWICK: People did come, of course, following the string of islands that led away from Asia, almost like sliding downhill to bump into Australia. We may never know for certain when Aboriginals arrived. Thirty thousand years ago? Sixty thousand? Maybe more. But we know what they found: the welcoming green shore. The forest region beyond, creatures in it so unlike anywhere else. And then, the immensity beyond. Bare, bleached interior, the rock. There are no earthquakes in Australia, the geologist had told me, because the subsurface rock is so thick, so incredibly hard, it has defied change for eons.

(Sculthorpe's music up and under)

SCULTHORPE: The Australian landscape is very flat. This is in the center of Australia.

CHADWICK: Composer Peter Sculthorpe.

SCULTHORPE: There's very little change. I mean, you can go for a walk in the morning, and what you see at lunch time is much the same as what you saw when you left.

FLANNERY: This is the most difficult continent to make a living in. It really is. There are no shortcuts. There are no great windfalls. It's a very marginal existence.

CHADWICK: It is the oldest continent, but it was the last big place the rest of the world discovered. European colonists didn't get here until 1788, and found perhaps the world's oldest civilization, the Aboriginals. Tim Flannery.

FLANNERY: I don't see those Aboriginal people as being in any way primitive. In fact, I think if we disregard material culture and just look at those people as they're interacting with the land, with each other, and the sort of groups they're living in, we can see that they're the most specialized people ever to have evolved on Earth, because they're have to adapt to this most extreme of continents. But they were doing things in such an alien way that the Europeans failed to see the significance of their actions. This continent was just too different for the Europeans to really comprehend.

CHADWICK: They have come to understand it better now. Geologists know how ancient Australia is, how worn away. Ecologists can see that when the Aboriginals did get here, those 20-foot lizards were no match. Biologists warn that modern-day Australians are making their own changes, many of them troubling. Creatures brought from other places go wild here and overwhelm local species. Forests are cut. Meager farming soils are further weakened. Australians seem to love their hard, dry landscape nonetheless. The scientists and the artists, too. Peter Sculthorpe named this piece for an Aboriginal sacred place: Nourlangie, in Australia's great Kakadu National Park. Nourlangie. It's a rock.

(Sculthorpe's music and bird calls up and under)

SCULTHORPE: I climbed up on top of the rock, Nourlangie, this massive rock. And just stood there, and I imagined that I could hear local music of the Gagaju tribe. That I could hear sounds hanging in the air from early Colonial settlement. That I could hear indigenous music from Torres Strait, and even gamelan music from Indonesia coming in on the wind. It wasn't only the music, of course. It was thunder and bird sounds, everything seemed to come together.

(Sculthorpe's music and bird calls up and under)

CHADWICK: Composer Peter Sculthorpe on the landscape of his native country. For Radio Expeditions in Australia, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR news.

(Sculthorpe's music and bird calls up and under)

CURWOOD: Our report on Australia's ancient landscape was produced by Carolyn Jensen and recorded by Manoli Wetherell. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR news and the National Geographic Society.



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